► Ian Fraser drives the 1970s Alfasud
► Should this be a Car of the Year contender?
► One of our Iconic Car features in CAR+
We all know the cars that were almost CAR of the Year in 1971. Well, we have just driven the Alfasud from that list and the word is that Alfa Romeo robbed themselves of our annual award; they made their smallest car eligible for top honours by announcing it last November, but then waited until the middle of this year – some eight months – before letting anyone get behind the wheel.
So it’s out of the running to ever get our award (although some European journals have done the very un-British thing and adjusted their regulations to bring the Alfasud into this year’s lists) but that does not stop it from being a tremendously good small car, regardless of the method of measurement. There is only one small detail: the price. As yet it has not been revealed, but it is not likely to be more than, let’s say, a Fiat 124. It’s a car that can afford to be a little more than a 128, a Citroen GS or a Peugeot 304. Being a better car, one is unlikely to quibble if the price is higher.
According to Engineer Lorenzo Luraghi (son of the Alfa Romeo president) who for four years has been nursing the Sud through its birth pains, the aim was to produce not a small car for the sake of financial expediency, but to make a small Alfa Romeo, with all that this implies in terms of performance, handling and character. And that is exactly what has been achieved.
The fact that the car has front-wheel-drive is not being used as an excuse for anything. It neither feels nor behaves like an fwd, has better performance than one should reasonably expect from 1200cc, has been endowed with a disproportionate amount of interior space considering its dimensions and is shaped to look like a proper car, not a box on wheels. The fact that the Citroen GS and the Sud are virtually kissin’ cousins in appearance is due more to the beginnings of a new styling influence than any question of designs being filched.
For Alfa Romeo, the Sud is another sort of beginning. It is the start of a new family of small cars with increasingly higher performance and a variety of alternative body styles. The Sud’s immediate job is to get Alfa Romeo into the low-cost market segment as well as to breach the gap between the Fiat 128 for instance, and the Giulia Super. Thus, different engine packages will eventually become available, just as there will be coupe and Spider versions to chase the Lancia 1300s.
Eventually the factory, built on an old airfield site at Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples, will be able to produce more than 1000 cars a day and will employ 12,000 people. At the moment installation of machinery is still taking place and there are only a few thousand workers on strength to make 70 cars a day. The factory is largely self-contained, only the forgings and castings coming from outside sources. To honour the made-in-the-South principle Alfa Romeo bought much of the machinery for the plant from firms in the Naples area. And, of course, the labour will all be Southern. More than 140,000 people applied for jobs.
Alfasud are justifiably worried about acquiring – and keeping – a quality image for their products. The cars I examined should give the company little cause for concern, but these are early days yet. Of course, the car is in rubber floor mat, plastic fascia idiom, rather like a Fiat 128, with the same sort of adequate instrumentation, small items stowage and trim. They have fallen into traps along the way, of course, for the trim is far too sticky and sweaty in hot weather and the dial containing the minor instruments is simply a mass of reflections originating from the driver’s clothing (wear a matt-black shirt and there’s no problem). The remainder of the cabin is remarkably good, however, being both functional and comfortable. The seats have more rearward adjustment than some six-footers need and the squabs are reclinable, but only through a few degrees. The steering column, like the Alfetta’s, is adjustable for rake merely by unscrewing a knurled knob. Pendant-type pedals are used and are very well place on the left-hand-drive cars, but on the right-hand-drive prototype Eng Luraghi wheeled out for the British press to inspect, things were just a bit tight between the clutch pedal and the traditional Alfa footrest. Nevertheless, perfectly acceptable, especially as all the controls are still tidily in line with no offset to turn the driver’s torso into a corkscrew. All the controls are simplified compared with those of the bigger Alfas, so that nothing of important remains on the dashboard; even the blower for the ventilation system is a steering column stalk, along with the wiper, lights, winkers and horn, but the dah-mounted washer button – a cheap pump-it-yourself rubber diaphragm – is not too handy.
Both the conventional Alfas and the Alfetta have such good gearchanges that the Sud’s slightly rubbery action is a little disappointing, but is nullified to some extent by the obvious provision for inclusion of a fifth gear within the existing gate. The gearbox itself has space within the casing to accept it and it is no great secret that some alternative-model Suds in the future will have five cogs in their innards. Eng Luraghi told me that the transmission has been designed to accept the power and torque of an engine half a litre larger than the Sud’s.
Meantime, the 1186cc, flat four liquid-cooled power unit does a commendably good job. With a bore and stroke of 88mm by 59mm it is substantially oversquare, the piston crowns forming the combustion chambers in a typical Heron-head configuration. The valves are already as big as they can be which in no small way helps the engine achieve its 63(DIN) horsepower at 6000rpm with maximum torque at 3500. The compression ratio, which started at 9.0 to one, has been reduced to 8.8 to meet European emission standards. The exhaust valves are of austenitic steel (other Alfas have sodium-filled exhausts), and the tappet adjustment is simply a matter of screw adjustment through the centre of the camshaft, between the two lobes that actuate each valve. The two camshafts are driven by toothed belts from the front of the crankshaft. The crankcase itself is a monobloc which, of course, eliminates the sealing problems that can be associated with two-piece crankcases. There is also a weight advantage which must be taken into consideration when an engine is so far ahead of the front axle line.
It is one of the smoothest and least obtrusive small engines I have encountered, being able to rev freely well beyond the 6000rpm limit (imposed by speedometer markings since there is no tacho). One can actually overlook top gear by virtue of the fact that the engine is so smooth; one can travel miles in third, confident in the knowledge that top has already been selected. Third has a maximum of around 80mph, while 53mph comes up second easily enough, with a useful 30mph flat-out speed in first. Alfa claim a maximum speed of 93mph, so in view of the fact that the speedometer was content to hold 100mph along the autostradi in southern Italy, I find no reason to doubt the manufacturer’s word on the subject. For amusement, I dashed off a couple of 0 to 50mph acceleration times. The Sud got off to a wheelspin-screeching start and arrived at 50 in 10.1 seconds with a near-full fuel tank (11.4 gallons total) and one person aboard.
Even when the wheels were scrambling for traction there was very little reaction through the steering, which, like the Alfetta’s, is rack-and-pinion. The steering, in fact, is remarkably light despite 165-70SR-13 radials and free from fight no matter what the circumstance. And unlike many fwd cars, the steering does not get heavy when the Sud is being cornered really hard. Eng Luraghi’s team have taken great pains to ensure that the car has near-neutral handling and none of the physical manifestations of fwd. He is, however, rather vague as to how they managed such a trick. With a disarming smile, he told me that it was due to careful attention to the geometry and especially to giving the front wheel negative camber.
The result of all this is a car that can be made to oversteer at will and which will respond to completely normal steering tactics. Yet it is in no way a nervous car and has excellent direction stability all the way up to the maximum speed. On one particularly slippery corner I managed to tuck the front wheels in sufficiently early to get a loss of traction at the front, followed very quickly by the back wheels sailing outwards and the front regaining grip. The problem was resolved by merely winding on some lock and pressing ahead.
MacPherson struts are used at the front, along with an anti-roll bar. The brake discs are carried inboard to reduce unsprung weight. At the rear simple beam axle uses coils spring with trailing and leading locating arms, arranged in a Watt’s parallelogram. The suspension as a whole works remarkably well. There is a lot of wheel travel on bad surfaces but the stabiliser bars restrict the amount of body roll on corners. There is virtually no drive under braking. Discs are used all round and provide very good stopping arrangements, especially from high speeds. However, they lack any form of servo assistance and therefore need a very high pedal-pressure onset rate during hard braking from comparatively slow speeds – rather alarming and completely out of character with the lightness of the other controls. However, I noted that the right-hand-drive prototype had a servo installed. Maybe it will be standard equipment by the time the Sud comes on sale in the UK during the first half of 1973.